GOP legislatures keep forcing doctors to spread misinformation about 'abortion reversal'

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Research shows the unproven procedure is not only misguided but dangerous.

As 2021 shapes up to be the worst year ever for abortion rights, one type of law keeps popping up. Several states have passed laws requiring doctors to provide patients with information about so-called "abortion reversal," with the latest being Louisiana. Meanwhile, Ohio has a similar bill making its way through the Legislature there.

"Abortion reversal" is a debunked notion that a medication abortion can be stopped by taking a large dose of progesterone between the first and second medications required for the abortion procedure. The process is by-and-large promoted by a single doctor, George Delgado, who invented the concept and insists he has seen "50 to 75" safe reversals. 

Delgado's backing for the claim that medication abortions can be successfully reversed mid-process stems from 2012, when he examined six women who took mifepristone, the first drug in the medication abortion process. The women then took progesterone in varying doses, and four of them continued their pregnancies. They never took the second drug in the medication abortion process, misoprostol.

As the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has explained, Delgado's examination cannot even be called a study. There was no control group of people who did not take progesterone, nor was the process supervised by any institutional or ethical review body. 

Nor have Delgado's results been replicated. Researchers from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of California, Davis, sought to enroll 40 people in a randomized, double-blind study in which neither the physicians nor the patients knew whether they were receiving progesterone or a placebo.

However, they had to stop the study after only 12 people were enrolled. Of those 12, three were rushed to the hospital because they were dangerously hemorrhaging blood. To the extent the UC Davis study was able to come to any conclusions, it was that patients in early pregnancy who take only the first medication abortion drug, mifepristone "may be at high risk of significant hemorrhage."

Nonetheless, states keep passing laws that require doctors to inform their patients that abortion reversal is an option available to them. Six states — Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Utah — have these sorts of laws on the books, while laws in four other states — North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Indiana — are blocked by the courts. 

Indiana's law was blocked in federal court just last month on two different grounds. The judge held that the state didn't prove the reversal process was effective, and he found that it was reasonably likely that requiring doctors to tell patients about a process they do not believe to be safe or effective is a violation of their First Amendment rights. 

Neither the safety concerns nor the First Amendment prevented anti-choice Louisiana Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards from signing a bill requiring doctors to tell patients they can stop an abortion by deciding not to take the second medication abortion pill. The bill also requires doctors to tell patients to contact a medical professional if they regret their choice in order to see if there are options available for them to continue the pregnancy. 

Just a few years ago, Louisiana's own Department of Health found that there was "insufficient evidence to suggest there is a sound method to reverse a medication-induced abortion."

Whereas Louisiana demands doctors push medical misinformation but provides no teeth in the law, Ohio's proposed law imposes criminal penalties on providers who fail to give patients information on the supposed reversal of medication abortion. The first failure to provide misinformation is a misdemeanor; subsequent ones are felonies.

The anti-abortion legislator sponsoring Ohio's legislation, Republican Rep. Kyle Koehler, says the bill is about "informed consent" and that it provides "scientific and proven medical information." However, medical professionals keep making clear that "abortion reversal" is neither scientific nor proven. 

While the bills introduced in Louisiana and Ohio require abortion providers to be complicit in lying about medical care and procedural risks and would likely violate their First Amendment rights, anti-abortion activists who have in other cases expressed concern over people being compelled to say something they don't believe in look the other way when it comes to abortion providers and their rights. 

Just three years ago, in National Institute of Family & Life Advocates v. Becerra, the Supreme Court threw out a California law that required organizations such as anti-abortion "crisis pregnancy centers" to provide notice to patients that California had free and low-cost abortion and reproductive health services available elsewhere. Anti-abortion groups argued that being required to say other services were available at different locations violated their free exercise of religion and free speech rights.